Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2004 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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Let's hear it for the Electoral College | If you live, as we do, in a blue state or a red state, it's easy to feel left out in this presidential election, where both campaigns are focusing their time and money on a handful of "battlegrounds." This year, voters in the three largest states -- California, New York and Texas -- only see the candidates when they drop in for fund-raisers, stopping by to pick up checks. That's a direct effect of the Electoral College, and it's not unlikely that -- as in 2000 -- the popular vote might go to one candidate and the Electoral College to the other. Even so, we think the archaic system of electing our presidents serves us well.

Without the Electoral College, you wouldn't be hearing about the Hispanic vote, the black vote, the Arab-American vote or the Jewish vote, all small percentages of the national total. But look at the battlegrounds: Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Florida -- states where the Hispanic vote is significant. The Jewish vote in Florida and the Arab-American vote in Michigan could tip the scales, as could the African-American vote in both states.

Without the Electoral College, candidates would have no reason to pay attention to groups like farmers -- a tiny percentage of the population, but a significant force in Iowa and Wisconsin. Most voters list abortion near the bottom of the issues they consider when picking a president. But pro-choice stalwarts in the suburbs of Philadelphia or pro-life activists in the cities of Minnesota could make the difference in those crucial states.

Without the Electoral College, small states like New Hampshire would be ignored after the primary season. This year it's a campaign plane destination. In fact, there wouldn't be much need to visit anyplace but large cities with lots of voters. National advertising could do the rest. Forcing candidates out into the country contributes to a breadth, not just a depth, of support necessary to govern so vast a land.

America's founders created a system of electors to choose the president and vice president in order to guard against the "tyranny of the majority" and to protect small states against large ones. It was a constant balancing act during the Constitutional Convention -- and at times it appeared that the framers of the constitution would be unable to create a new form of government. But the politicians meeting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 kept working to find compromises everyone could accept, so that no one felt his rights were being trampled.

Before they settled on electors to choose the president, the Convention considered three other alternatives, and decided each upset the balance they had worked so hard to achieve. A proposal that Congress elect the chief executive was rejected because it tipped power to the legislative branch instead of maintaining the separation of the powers just created. The second proposal, allowing state legislatures to pick the president, was seen as dangerous to a cohesive federal government.

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The third alternative -- direct popular vote -- was vetoed by representatives of the small states, who feared that favorite sons of the big states would always rule. Small states have continued to worry about their clout ever since, and repeated attempts to abolish the Electoral College have never gotten through the Congress.

Voters in New York, California and Texas make a good argument that the balance has tipped too far in favor of the small over the big. And it doesn't make much sense for the biggest population centers to virtually fall off the political map. But that's this year. In other years those states have been fiercely fought over battlegrounds, and they will be again. Even in this year, the contested states have shifted in the course of the campaign.

The country keeps changing, with no two presidential years exactly the same.

The states themselves keep changing. Formerly small states are now big, and some of the biggest states are getting smaller. If John Kerry wins all of the states Al Gore did four years ago, he will end up with fewer votes in the Electoral College because of population shifts reflected in the last census. When they presented the Constitution to the states for ratification, the framers knew the compromises they had reached would be hard to sell. Every state had something to complain about. That's what balancing acts are all about. But, as James Wilson, the Pennsylvanian who came up with the idea of the Electoral College, told his state's ratifying convention, "When I reflect how widely men differ in their opinions ... it is the best form of government which has ever been offered the world." So we say don't mess with it.

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© 2004, NEA